The omnichannel boss may be the most in-demand job in retail today. It’s a position that stretches from software to logistics, e-commerce and fulfillment to marketing and social media.
This story first appeared in the April 6, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Omnichannel retailing has become a popular buzz phrase for chief executive officers as they articulate their strategies to evolve retail models in the digital age,” wrote Morningstar in a recent report.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible for one person to be able to master the divergent set of skills needed and, as a result, filling such a position in retail is a challenge for executive recruiters. First, there aren’t that many people in retail with a proven track record to pull from since the job hasn’t existed for that long. Second, the retailers don’t know exactly what they want, which makes the search even more difficult to fill.
Anthony Christodoulou, president of executive search firm Janou Pakter LLC, said he may fill the job with one type of candidate, only to have the client come back two years later and ask for someone with a completely different set of skills. Since there isn’t one specific description for the job, there isn’t a repeatable road map for executive recruiters to follow.
“If you’re the retailer and the stores are doing well and you want to get into the [e-commerce] side, they will have us find somebody that can build it for them on a project basis versus employ them permanently,” Christodoulou said. When the retailer decides it no longer wants to pay the employment agency and decides to bring the job in-house, they want to find a permanent employee for that role and build a team around them. The retail companies, in an effort to solve the digital dilemma, keep pivoting when trying to fill the job.
He noted the searches are also exceedingly niche. “It all comes down to the skill. The skill doesn’t always transfer into their model and that’s the bit that’s difficult.”
He said some retailers want to be a “techie company” and they want someone from Apple, Google or Facebook, but they can’t attract them. He cited instances where a tech person switches to retail for a specific project, but then retailers being retailers, they change their minds, which frustrates the tech person. “They want to be this techie company, but really you’re a retailer,” Christodoulou said.
“The common theme I’m finding now is that people are looking at digital more for image like public relations and marketing — more than to make any revenue out of it,” he said. This is a big switch, because while much of the research shows that online shopping is growing, actually making money at it is difficult. “It’s hard for the executives to decide who to bring in,” Christodoulou acknowledged. Do they bring in a logistics whiz to make online shopping more economical, or do they hire a brand expert who can create a powerful story narrative?
For example, Target brought in Brian Cornell from PepsiCo specifically for his extensive experience outside of the traditional mass merchant. Cornell had global expertise from PepsiCo Americas Foods, online skills from his time overseeing safeway.com and logistics experience from the fulfillment program he initiated at Sam’s Club. The search firm Korn Ferry found Cornell for Target.
The data indicate the growing importance of finding executives with that kind of broad skill set. According to Aberdeen Group, companies with extremely strong omnichannel customer engagement see a 9.5 percent year-over-year increase in annual revenue compared to 3.4 percent for weak omnichannel companies. Plus, the companies with this strong engagement retain their customers 89 percent of the time versus the weaker retailers, which only retain them 33 percent of the time.
It’s the omnichannel boss’ responsibility to find the e-commerce sweet spot for a retailer: Balancing brand engagement with the cost of digital investment. EKN Research revealed that retailers spend a whopping 18 cents of every dollar on omnichannel fulfillment, so it’s critical for the omni-boss to get that right.
“Everybody is trying to crack the code,” said Farla Efros, president of HRC Advisory. “Meaning, how do we make money. That’s the reality.”
Logistics are a key aspect of the online shopping experience and a large part of the omni-boss job. Some create big fulfillment centers, while others opt to fill orders from the stores. The omni-boss has to choose which method is best for that particular company. The boss also has to decide how much to charge customers for shipping. Free shipping could be an expense decision or a marketing decision.
The omni-boss doesn’t have to be an IT wizard but needs to be aware of all the latest available technology and where best to spend the company’s IT dollars. It’s critical that the omni-boss be able to separate necessary tech updates from novelty tech upgrades. Are store beacons really necessary, or is the company better off upgrading inventory tracking technology?
With such a divergent skill set, it’s no wonder that these jobs candidates can command hefty salaries. “You pay a lot for these omnichannel people. They get paid a lot more than the [chief information officer] jobs,” Efros said. “They’re hard to find. They’re really hard to find.”
Efros noted that many companies are looking for people with entrepreneurial skills to fill the role. An entrepreneur is a person who can understand and coordinate all these needs in a creative way.
“There are no one-size-fits-all candidates,” said Les Berglass, founder of Berglass + Associates. “We look for all our job candidates today — regardless of position — to respect mobile without having to understand the nuts and bolts of it.”
Ultimately, the best person for the job is the person who ensures that the brand presence remains consistent.
Brenda Malloy of Herbert Mines Associates said the ability to connect the dots across the organization is also a desirable attribute. “The digital leaders need to be fully rounded to be really successful both for their peers and for the company as a whole,” she said.
Malloy noted that the best omnichannel candidates are ones with proven track records. “Bringing experience from successful companies and winning strategies is key. Past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. Rarely do people go from last to first,” Malloy said.
While some believe it takes a Millennial to navigate today’s new online marketplace, Malloy disagrees. “Youth is good, but nothing replaces wisdom. Relevant experience is valued more than youth.”
Trying to find the right person for a constantly evolving role has led to a lot of retail and technology crossovers. Most notably, Apple hired Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts to reshape the retail stores. Before that, Apple’s retail senior vice president Ron Johnson left to go work for J.C. Penney Co. Inc. — a move that proved disastrous for Penney’s and for Johnson. Penney’s then turned to a tried-and-true retailer for its next ceo, Marvin Ellison, although he had key operations experience at Home Depot.